Talking with David James Keaton about his sprawling, hard-to-describe books has become a semi-regular occurrence around these parts, and we wouldn’t have it any other way. His new novel Head Cleaner follows the staff of a video store as they find themselves on the verge of a bizarre discovery about physical media and experiencing a phenomenon that evokes time loops at their most paranoia-inducing. I chatted with Keaton about the novel’s origins, its ties to his other work, and movies that could change the world.
Head Cleaner could be described in a lot of different ways: a workplace novel, a time-loop story, a conspiracy thriller, and a time-travel narrative among them. How do you think of it? And was there a challenge in keeping all of these elements in balance?
I’d agree that at its core this is essentially a workplace novel. And the fact that the workplace was a video store—where walking back and forth from one end of the store to the other all day is its own sort of literal “genre-hopping”—meant that the other aspects of the novel sort of attached themselves to this gooey center as it chugged along? Kinda like a snowball rolling down the sticky floor of a movie theater. It certainly owes a lot to Stewart O’Nan’s workplace novella, Last Night at the Lobster, which for former retail or food-service workers is a stressful comfort read of the highest order (not a contradiction!)
In this novel, as well as She Was Found in a Guitar Case and The Last Projector, you balance quotidian moments with headier and more maximalist elements. How do you establish the ground rules for the worlds of these novels, in terms of what is and is not possible?
That’s a great question, and if I could answer it maybe this novel might be easier to classify (which in turn might get me some more readers!). For example, I was both excited and a little unsettled by a recent Library Review article which included Head Cleaner on its list of “hybrid” books that were particularly challenging to shelve. But I honestly don’t know where it would go either. Which probably has something to do with the not-quite magic realism, not-quite bizarro, not-quite slipstream, not-quite thriller “rules” of these sorts of projects? But honestly it’s all probably the result of pulling back to reality when it feels too wrong and stretching believability if it feels too right. Wait, that’s backwards.
Part of the plot of Head Cleaner involves the idea that the last type of various devices takes on reality-altering abilities. You’ve also written a novel called The Last Projector. Coincidence? Do you see these two books as being especially in conversation?
I hadn’t considered the “last projector” being one of those devices until you said this, but this is totally a “holy shit!” moment and now you’ve convinced me that they do exist in the same universe. I’m guessing I wasn’t quite finished with attributing a reality bend to old technology, and maybe I’m still not done with it, especially considering all the “lasts” I discovered while writing this book. For example, did you know that David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence was the last VHS tape to be produced (at least in the U.S.)? How insane is that? This must mean something, right? And it’s crazy that I didn’t know this bit of trivia until last week, and even crazier that this fact hasn’t found its way into a novel (at least not yet).
I had forgotten about the existence of sneakers with wheels in the heel until you wrote about them in this book. Were there any other relics of a bygone age that you found yourself alluding to while working on this novel?
I think those “Heelys” are making a comeback! I saw some recently in a Fail video and impossibly the “fail” had nothing to do with those shoes tripping her up. But yeah, towards the end of the novel, we discover a room of old technology, and while researching some of this outdated tech, I started getting obsessed with things that resembled other things, like transistor radios shaped like hamburgers, or the little audiotape “Transformer,” or the Transformers shaped like hamburgers (McDonalds put them in Happy Meals)… so I guess it was a specific obsession with the “last” example of any toy or radio that came off an assembly line shaped like a hamburger, and I ended up buying a couple off eBay for real cheap. Clearly, I didn’t know where to put that energy.
Besides the conspiratorial elements of Head Cleaner, the narrative also includes a form of time loops and alterations to the history of the world. What was the process of keeping that organized while you wrote it like?
The “reset button” of starting a day over was immensely helpful when it comes to keeping it all straight, though most of those looped moments were just me indulging in the possibilities of time loop by literally talking it to death (a.k.a. out of existence). So my thesis here was sort of, if the characters’ special skill is analyzing the hell out of pop culture as well their situation to the point that anything, no matter how bonkers (even with very tangible proof that something supernatural is going on, like being presented a videotape of their own deaths) then they should be able to talk their way out of it. Exhausting all possibilities, even if it’s just during a conversation, contains real power. For better or for worse, we have always had the ability to “explain things away.” So they basically “Scooby-Doo” that shit! So anyone with an arsenal of film tropes at their disposal might be able talk their way out of a bullet.
Do you have a particular favorite time loop storyline?
I did sort of a riff on Groundhog Day in the novel (“Warthog Day”), where I was saying that actually being in a situation like that would be horrifying and a lotta no fun at all. One thought experiment I’ve enjoyed since that movie came out is, after a particularly harrowing, mind-numbing day at work, or just living life in all its mundane glory, I get home, kick off my shoes, collapse onto the floor and think… “Now go do it all again.” How terrible would that be! And I’ve always thought the conjecture surrounding that movie was more interesting than the movie itself (hard to believe since it’s a classic now, but I remember when it came out and most people though it was just “okay”), but the fact that someone somewhere scientifically proved that Billy Murray must have repeated that one day for decades is pure terror.
But I truly believe that no one has topped the brutal efficiency and escalating dread of Nacho Vigalondo’s Timecrimes, which takes a deceptively simple series of repeated events and shows how easily they would spiral into madness, and its influence on this novel can’t be overstated. There’s just something so organic in the way that the main character [16 year-old spoiler] evolves into a masked, scissor-wielding monster, and it’s a completely logical progression. For example, in any time loop, wrapping creepy bandages around your face so you don’t recognize yourself seems like such a no-brainer. And I absolutely love how the “hero” solves his dilemma, basically cheating fate as well as his (and our) own eyes. I just hope that the same sort of “cheat” that I landed on at the end of Head Cleaner (very much inspired by this film) resonates in similar ways, hopefully more of a ”niiiiiiice” than a “come on!” from the reader when they close the book.
Several of Head Cleaner‘s characters alter crucial moments in classic films. Do you have a sense of what your preferred alteration to a film would be, if you had access to this kind of technology?
Speaking of cheats, right? Well, as far as some magical movie revisionist history (so that we don’t just end up playing “Fix a Movie in One Line” or “Ruin a Movie with One Word” all day) your question has me first leaning towards dropping bungled endings from otherwise perfect movies. Like Hitchcock’s infamous 11th-hour Psycho Exposition Dump. Or the goofy curtain-call spanking of the murderous child in The Bad Seed. Or maybe I’d have McCabe in McCabe & Mrs. Miller wearing his amazing giant fur coat at the end of the movie instead of the beginning, so he doesn’t die in the snow. Or speaking of beginnings, how about getting rid of the shot of the flying saucer in the opening credits of Carpenter’s The Thing (it spoils everything!) or how about something more feasible, like just putting the ax back on the poster of So I Married An Axe Murderer? I mean, come on, he’s got flowers behind his back and she’s got nothing? It makes no sense! The original artwork must have had an ax there, right? Or maybe I’d just abuse this power to make the freaky man-rabbit from Donnie Darko be the same freaky man-rabbit in Sexy Beast. But only if Sexy Beast played second in this double-feature, because that crazy rabbit is clearly getting rattier and rattier during its ongoing adventures in doomsaying and dream crashing. Speaking of crashing, both movies also have large objects crashing into houses! It’s all gotta mean something, right? (he keeps saying over and over so he can sleep…)
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